A student could go from kindergarten all the way through medical school and never leave the Yakima Valley.

Beyond the 15 public K-12 school districts in Yakima County — and 11 more in neighboring Kittitas, Klickitat and western Benton counties — and a few private, religion-based schools, the Valley has a community college, a private technical training institute, a private four-year university and a fully accredited medical school. To round out the educational offering with a state college, Central Washington University is just a short distance away in Ellensburg.

The system not only provides education for students around the Valley and beyond, it also employs lots of people — an estimated 8,000 in public and private education in Yakima County alone as teachers, professors, administrators, para-educators and other support staff.

The Valley faces several challenges due to high levels of poverty, not unique in Washington but more concentrated than in most other areas around the state. In most school districts, a majority of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch, a basic measure of poverty among students.

Budget cuts at the state level to both K-12 and higher education in recent years have made those obstacles even more difficult, educators say, as they are required to “do more with less.” A state Supreme Court decision last year has done little, in practice, to enforce the Legislature’s constitutionally required duty to fund basic education, though lawmakers are optimistic that they will make progress this session in directing more money toward K-12 schools.

Still, education is an employment powerhouse in Central Washington — the No. 1 employer in smaller towns. And the numbers show that employment has remained generally steady over the past few years, despite budget cuts.

“A lot of the local government employment is in local government schools; it’s probably the largest component,” said regional labor economist Don Meseck with the state Department of Employment Security. As of 2011, the most current annual data, “It hasn’t shown tremendous fluctuation,” he said.

But cuts have reduced some of the resources available to help local students and provide an affordable education.

“The amount of the cuts (since 2008) have been the equivalent of about 35 percent of our budget,” said Linda Kaminski, president of Yakima Valley Community College. While that means the school has had to become more efficient with fewer resources, “for full-time employees, it’s fairly stable,” she said. Part-time employees, however, might lose their positions after a quarter or a year.

Among private employers, Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences is a good example of the diversity of jobs in education here. A little more than eight years ago, PNWU was only an idea being tossed around by a handful of medical professionals and community leaders who saw a need for more primary care doctors.

Since 2006, when there were only five people on the payroll, the university has steadily increased employment: 29 people in 2007, 104 in 2010, and up to 160 this past school year. In the 2013-14 school year, the university will nearly double its class size and is adding 11 new jobs to support the increase.

Heritage University in Toppenish is another institution that showcases the ingenuity and determination of the local education community. Heritage was founded by a nun in 1982 to reach out to nontraditional students — those who never thought college could be accessible to them due to poverty, or because no one in their family had ever pursued higher education, or who were older and wanting to return to school to gain entry into better-paying jobs.

Today, the school is attracting more and more students straight out of high school, and it employs about 300 people.

Aiming to prepare students for life after high school, be it college or a career, local K-12 schools are increasingly focused on STEM education: science, technology, engineering and math. Classes are becoming more hands-on, with an emphasis on explaining the practical, real-world application of what students are learning.

The push toward STEM brings a demand for more specialized teachers, said David Goehner, spokesman for the local Educational Service District 105. Schools generally have an overabundance of candidates for K-8 teaching jobs, but have difficulty finding qualified people to teach higher level science, technology and math.

There’s also a shortage of special education teachers, ESD 105 Superintendent Steve Myers said, as well as teachers in the arts and music.

Myers works closely with K-12 superintendents throughout Yakima and the surrounding counties. He said many districts are finding that, with so much uncertainty in the job market, people are staying put in their jobs rather than exploring positions elsewhere, where they would have to start over at the bottom of the seniority scale and be at greater risk of being cut if funds are reduced.

“Nobody wants to get RIF’d (reduction-in-force),” he said.

Looking at the education system as a whole, Myers praised the role of local schools, which in many small towns are the largest employer. Schools often serve as a hub for community activities in rural areas, too.

“Our schools are our community,” Myers said. “The schools are the backbone of the community, and life, especially, in midsize and small communities, revolves around the school.”

• Molly Rosbach can be reached at 509-577-7728 or mrosbach@yakimaherald.com.